E s s a y s
CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE IN CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE DURING THE FIRST DECADE AFTER COMMUNISM
When my non-believing friends ask me what faith is and what it's good for, I reply that faith gives one the strength to accept reality fully and in its entirety, because it is based on the conviction and experience that there is a meaning to reality, that our life is not a succession of accidents nor - in the words of Shakespeare's Macbeth - "a tale told by an idiot... signifying nothing." Faith is the confidence that in every life situation there is meaning, opportunity and hope. It is not up to me personally to invest life with meaning, the meaning is already here and challenges me to find it and strive to understand it as fully as I can. So I don't have to despair and flee from reality however complicated and harsh it may be. Nor do I have to dress it up in illusions. That is why I believe that faith is the ally of realism and critical thinking and the enemy of superstition, prejudice and illusion. It is the courage of truth. The priest who many years ago introduced me to Christianity used to stress that there was one commandment that pre-dated all the Ten Commandments, namely: Thou shalt not deceive thyself nor the Lord thy God.
During the communist period, in common with many Christians, I discovered that faith gives us the strength to stand the test in the difficult circumstances of persecution. For many Christians who stood the test during the period of persecution it is hard to stand the test at this time of freedom. They grew too used to a time when the world was black and white, when it was clear who was with us and who wasn't, and where the boundary between good and evil was situated. They find it even more demanding and complicated to live in freedom that opens up a many-hued palette of opportunity and requires one to make choices over and over again. I am firmly convinced, however, that a real and healthy faith is the courage to be free. It gives us strength to accept freedom with all its risks. I believe that God summoned us to freedom, even though he knew all the risks entailed.
Since I believe that faith is the courage of truth, I feel it my duty not to abandon critical thinking in my testimonial and this present analysis. I regard wishful thinking as very dangerous and counter- productive.
So please forgive me if I give my paper on the first decade of church life after the fall of communism a less than optimistic sub-title, namely: Great expectations and meagre results. Or: The sobering-up period. But Scripture itself encourages us to regard sobriety as an important aspect of Christian life in this world and a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
I. First of all to rid oneself of misconceptions and simplifications
I will first try to correct three main misconceptions or simplifications, that I encounter most frequently in the attitudes of western Christians to "the post-Communist world".
1. The first misconception is implicit in the uncritical use of the term "post-Communist" countries or "Eastern Europe" - as if these were countries that had a great deal in common. In reality the overall situation - including that of religion - is often utterly dissimilar in the individual countries where communism once ruled.
If you listen to church representatives from the "post-communist countries", you will certainly find a lot of similarities in the things they confront: not enough experience of pluralist society, too few competent leading personalities or institutions, lack of money, inadequate practical analyses of the past or plans for the future, etc. But when you take a closer look at the reality, you notice the enormous differences in the culture and religiosity of those countries, which often over-ride West-East differences. According to all sorts of sociological criteria, religiosity in the Czech lands is more like French religiosity than Slovak. Polish religiosity is more Irish than Czech, etc. The situation of religiosity in a particular country has much more to do with how successfully faith was incorporated in the national culture, lifestyle and thinking of the people - that is far more important than the political past of a given country.
Moreover, you will cause irreparable offence to a Czech if you describe his country as "Eastern Europe". He will explain to you that his country lies in the heart of Europe (to the west of Austria), that we may have been (against our will) almost half a century under Russian domination but our nation has nothing in common with Russia in terms of culture or mentality, but belongs entirely to the West. Something similar is felt in Poland - even more passionately, in fact. Young people in our countries are particularly allergic to any appeal to "Pan-Slav feelings" - Pan-Slavism is regarded here as a dangerous political instrument of Russian imperialism. The Poles, Czechs and Hungarians are particularly proud of being part of Atlantic culture. Whenever "warnings against the corrupt West" are heard from within church circles, they are taken by many people here as unpleasantly reminiscent of communist propaganda.
2. The second misconception is the conviction that Christianity in our part of the world has a unique opportunity to fill the vacuum left after the fall of communism.
No vacuum remained in the hearts and minds of people after the fall of communism, because Marxism had long been dead in those countries. It is true that Marxism was the official ideology, but in reality almost no one had believed in it for many years There were fast less convinced Marxists there than in the West. Not even the vast majority of communist officials believed in Marxism - as a rule they were simply cynical apparatchiks.
What kept communism in power was not belief in an ideology, but instead an unwritten pact between the rulers and the ruled: so long as citizens conformed the state would ensure them a certain degree of social security and would tolerate all sorts of things - poor working morale, petty everyday economic crime with respect to the "people's property", etc. That secret "social contract" bred an odd kind of human that Josef Tischner has termed "homo sovieticus" - a person without creativity, initiative or responsibility. In totalitarian society everyone lived a guilt-free existence like in a Kafka novel: the rulers did everything in the name of the system or future happiness, the ruled had no freedom and so had no sense of responsibility. No wonder so many are pining for that paradise where they had no burden of responsibility.
There is much talk in eastern Europe about the need to "come to terms with the communist past" - and clearly that important task has yet to be fulfilled. Condemning communism is not simply a matter of bringing to trial a couple of communist criminals or distancing oneself verbally from the old regime and its ideology. It means pointing clearly to the "anthropological roots of totalitarianism", to those forms of behaviour and character traits that enabled the totalitarian regime to survive for so long. It is a thankless task and it is no wonder, therefore, that politicians in particular - and above all those who indulge in populism to maintain their popularity ratings - painstakingly eschew the topic.
During the period of "Eastern Bloc" communism, it wasn't Marxism but miasma that ruled - and that has not been removed to any great extent. It represents a great opportunity and challenge for Christianity only in the sense of long-term treatment of this condition, not that of "ascending the throne" vacated by the state ideology.
Happily the expectation that Christianity would replace Marxism as the state ideology was not particularly pronounced among Christians themselves (apart, perhaps, from a few notoriously traditionalist romantics and day-dreamers or those who sought to use religion as a lever for their political ambitions). However, immediately in the wake of 1989, a whole number of people outside the church had expectations of a major involvement in politics by the church and believers. Some feared the growing influence of the church - and the present wave of anti- clericalism, for instance (which is often expressed in an aversion to the restitution of church property), partly arose as a reaction to the fear that Christianity would become something like a state ideology and a stepping-stone to a career, or that a rich and powerful church would exert too great an influence on public life. Others hoped that the church, which enjoyed great moral authority because of the years of persecution, would rapidly come to society's assistance and help solve its major problems. Those who were chosen for important political office in various post-communist countries after 1989 included an impressive number of active Christians, many of whom did not stay long in those jobs, however. Just a few years after 1989, the popularity of the dissidents in politics fell considerably; in many cases they were replaced by more pragmatic leaders who drew their recruits from the former "grey zone" or even from the ranks of former communists.
Anyone who believed that Catholicism would play a major social and political role in those countries, comparable to the one it had played in the renewal of Germany and Europe after the fall of Nazism, was soon disabused in the next few years. Nothing appeared to recall the generation of great Catholic politicians such as Robert Schumann, Adenauer or De Gasperi. The idea that Catholic social science could be a major inspiration for the process of political, economic and social transformation of the post-Communist countries tended to remain a pious hope. In that area liberal and social-democratic schemes tended to dominate and relics of Marxist phraseology often crept into the language of both main tendencies. (For instance, many critics of the Czech version of liberalism linked with the name of Václav Klaus talk about a sort of "Marxism in reverse" - changes in the economic "base" were almost automatically expected to bring about changes in the "superstructure"; however, just as socialisation of the means of production did not give birth to the Socialist Superman promised by the communists, so their privatisation did not automatically give rise to creative, enterprising, honest and hard-working citizens.) So far, church circles in the post-communist countries are still insufficiently informed about Catholic social science and it has yet to be applied creatively to local conditions, social encyclicals having tended to concentrate on the western situation.
3. The third misconception consists in idealising the eastern European churches and the expectation that the churches of the catacombs steeled by persecution will renew a western church fallen prey to the secular mentality and racked with crisis.
This misconception is chiefly fostered by traditionalist circles in the West who regard the eastern European church as a sort of Sleeping Beauty who had the good fortune to sleep through the 2nd Vatican Council and post-Vatican-II developments. They will now waken her with a kiss and her beauty will recall the church of their childhood.
It must be said that in many of the churches in communist regimes reception of Vatican II was very limited. At a time of severe censorship, requisite information about the proceedings and significance of the Council was lacking. Moreover the communists had a specific interest in seeing to it that some of the Council's principles - e.g. ecumenical co-operation or greater scope for lay people - were not implemented in countries under their domination.
Nonetheless it cannot be said that the churches in those countries were indifferent to post-Vatican-II developments. In several papers I have tried to show that a number of Czech theologians during the period of severe persecution had reached similar conclusions to the Council on the basis of their own experience. The experience of shared suffering and struggle reconciled them with people of different political and religious persuasions, such as with Protestants, secular humanists, etc., and prison experience led them to a vision of a church free of all pomp and triumphalism, etc.
Even so, after the long years of isolation and persecution, the church is in a fairly woeful state overall. Above all we lack a solid theology without which even the valuable experience of the difficult times will not be reflected on. When certain representatives of east European churches take pride in the fact that they lack "difficult theologians" of the Drewermann or Kung variety, it seems to me just as embarrassing as when someone boasts about having no tooth decay but omits to add that he has false teeth. Whenever sharp criticism of the West is voiced by people in those circles it is often based on prejudice, ignorance and misunderstanding, or on an unacknowledged inferiority complex. It turns out that many crisis phenomena that exist in the West already exist in our countries or will soon arrive here.
Slogans like "ex oriente lux - ex occidente luxus" can arouse false hopes and have their origin in naiveté and self-deception. The fact that relative poverty ruled in the East doesn't mean that poverty was regarded as a virtue in the spirit of the Gospel. It has only become a virtue since the return of freedom. The terrifying experience of the consumer society, coarse materialism, inadequate solidarity and flouting of the elementary principles of fair play in the economic and political life of eastern Europe are warning enough. However, in this situation not even the churches can assume the role of moralists, capable of achieving the moral renewal of society "off their own bat". The church itself must undergo a process of renewal and repentance - and it would appear that the churches show no more courage than the rest of society in this respect. The churches in the communist countries were not solely made up of martyrs, they also included collaborators and compromisers - and those who were dissident in the days of communism can be just as bothersome now as they were then. It is certainly gratifying that in the post-communist world - either in society as a whole, or in the churches - there has been no merciless retribution; but nor has there been repentance - instead there has been a tendency to underplay and conceal guilt - and untreated wounds fester.
II. "The incredible lightness of revolution" - or: Globalisation defeated communism
We are speaking about the Christian experience of the decade since the fall of communism. I think in conclusion it is also necessary to look at what actually put paid to communism and opened up this new era. Indeed in hind-sight, those ten years look rather different to me than they even recently.
The fall of communism was a side-effect of the globalisation process, the world-wide tide of economic integration and socio-cultural changes, in which regimes based on a rigid system of management were unable to stand the test. The ruling circles of the communist regimes were neither willing nor able to communicate with their citizens and lost the power to control them. In a world of communication explosion it was impossible for them to keep their own citizens isolated within the ideological stereotypes of their own propaganda. The communist governments were unable to motivate their citizens in any way, having nothing to offer them either spiritually or materially. The countries of "really existing socialism" started to decline economically. Alongside the discontent of the narrow stratum of intellectuals who had long demanded cultural freedom, there was now a deepening of apathy and passivity among broad sections of the population. This only rarely flared up into open resistance, such as in the case of Polish Solidarity. The movements of dissidents were significant as a symbol of movement on the moral and cultural plane, but they were not the real political force that led the revolution. Within those movements various ideas were articulated which then became political programmes, and it was from those movements that emerged the personalities and groups that were to hasten the fall of the communist regimes and enable the rapid and non-violent transition of power. However that movement was not the actual author of political transformations: not only were the ordinary citizens taken by surprise by the rapidity and ease of the political changes but so also were most of the "opposition leaders". In the past such all-pervasive political changes tended to be the result of global, international or civil wars, or of uprisings headed by liberation movements. The "unbearable lightness" and "velvet nature" of the revolution in autumn 1989 make one even unsure to what extent it can be described as a revolution. In terms of its external appearance, the course of those changes had more in common with the peaceful transfer of power when authoritarian right-wing regimes were transformed into liberal democracies (e.g. in Portugal, the Philippines, Spain or Chile); nonetheless in central and eastern Europe these were far more radical changes - and not simply in the economic sphere. In all those peaceful transformations of authoritarian and totalitarian states into democratic societies, the church, its hierarchy and various Christian groups played a certain role - proportionate to the church's importance in that particular country. Major credit for the collapse of the communist empire must be given to such leading personalities as John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachov, even though their motivations and ideological outlooks were very different. But it was not the work of a single man, a single superpower or a single ideology, nor of a deliberate combination of different political forces.
Casting my mind back ten years it occurs to me that if there is a common denominator for what happened on the threshold of the nineteen nineties, then it is has to be the "process of globalisation" that knocked down the walls dividing Europe and swept the communist powers into the dustbin of history. That powerful tide of enormous changes, resembling the industrial revolution of the last century - which incidentally can be described as one of the initial phases of today's globalisation - is sweeping through the entire world, and not only in a geographical sense but also in terms of economics, politics, culture - and religion. It will transform West and East. Probably the western democracies are better prepared for this and many of the current difficulties of the former communist countries derive from the fact that they are taking rather a long time to rid themselves of the consequences of all those years when the natural dynamic of the life of society was frozen.
In the events of autumn 1989 the loser was communism. But it is very difficult to identify the victor. It certainly wasn't any of the forces within the communist-dominated societies (which is maybe one of the reasons why the populations of those countries don't seem to value freedom and democracy as much as one might have expected.) Liberation tended to come "from outside", rather than through their own endeavours, although it is certainly not our intention to disparage the suffering and heroism of the many opponents of communism.
However, one cannot simply assert that the West liberated the East. Nor was the final victor western liberalism, as Francis Fukyama maintained in his well-known thesis on the end of history. The liberal economy is just one aspect of the globalisation process and liberal philosophy is simply one way of interpreting that process. In the course of globalisation, problems arise that even western democracy finds it extremely hard to solve. Moreover, many different cultures and value systems confront each other in that process. It appears that Judaeo- Christian values, which gave rise to the western concept of democracy and human rights are not self-evident for many countries and cultures. The West too is in a process of transformation, even if so far it is not as evident as the changes in the East. In the West and the East alike this process appears ambivalent, and cannot be simply regarded as ongoing improvement. The evolutionary optimism of continuous progress died along with all the other gods of the modern age.
Globalisation is a process that is not controlled by any governmental authority and it defies all political control. Attempts to create some kind of international authority to ensure a legal framework for mutual communication and help prevent and solve conflicts of interests between various groups have had only limited success. For instance, the crisis in the Balkans has pointed to an enormous vacuum in the field of international law and the system of international security and defence of human rights. It has also shown up the weakness of such institutions as the UN or the Security Council.
There is even less reason to expect that some single religious or spiritual authority or institution will make any impression on the globalisation process. It is hard to guess what globalisation will bring in the field of religion. Which version will globalisation will triumph? The one characterised by the entertainment industry, mass media and the consumer mentality, i.e. the decadent form of secularisation? Will the new religious movements and their post-modern "new age" spirituality impose themselves? Or will, on the contrary, those phenomena provoke a convulsive self-defence reaction on the part of the traditional religions in the form of intolerance and fundamentalism? Will someone try to "Christen" or "Islamise" globalisation and unleash a missionary strategy on the wave of globalisation, similar to the way that Christianity once marched into the wide world along the highways built by the world-dominating ambitions of Ancient Rome? It looks as if any such attempts would quickly come to grief and would do no good at all.
A new quality was imprinted on the globalisation process by the historic meeting of the representatives of world religions that took place in Assisi in 1987 on the initiative of John Paul II - as well as by all other attempts at inter-religious dialogue. It is not a matter of a "super-religion", nor yet of an attempt to achieve the domination of one tradition over another - which would lead to religious disputes -but serious, painstaking, honest inter-religious dialogue in the spirit of mutual respect - that was the path chosen by the Catholic Church during the pontificates of the great and wise Popes Paul VI and John Paul II.
One of the fundamental issues of today's world in my view is whether, in the framework of the globalisation process, it will be possible to create a certain culture of dialogue and make globalisation a communication process. Inter-faith dialogue would be an inseparable part of such a process. Without it, global civilisation would simply be a new Tower of Babel.
I believe that in certain circumstances Catholicism could play an important role precisely in this area - it is able to lead a dialogue both with the world religions and with secular humanism, since it has points of contact with both of them. In his recent encyclical Fides et ratio, John Paul II called for a new alliance between faith, science and philosophy.
Yes, searching for points of contact and creating old and new alliances - that, in my view, is the path that the church must take to cross the threshold of the new century. And that clearly applies to the church everywhere: West and East, North and South.
In my view, one of the extremely positive fruits of the difficult period of persecution, is the fact that the church - and probably not only in my country - has managed to leave its ghetto and ally itself with other social groups and currents which shared the same oppression and the same yearning for freedom. In Poland, the church provided sanctuary for young non-conformist artists and provided the space for meetings between workers and intellectuals that gave rise to the Solidarity movement. Wherever the church was not concerned only about itself it acquired enormous moral authority, That "radiation" of the church seems to me far more hopeful and promising than classical form of mission. Evangelisation without inculturation degenerates into mere religious propaganda - and that is utterly counter-productive, because in particular those who lived through communism are allergic to all forms of indoctrination.
Yes, in countries where religion was suppressed and supplanted for decades, we often encounter profound ignorance and prejudice. Nonetheless, if the evangelisation of those countries is to be effective, it has to assume the character of dialogue, the first job of which is to listen to the questions which people in those countries are now asking themselves. I stress: the questions that people are really faced with in their daily life, not the questions to which we know the answers in advance. Eric Voegelin once wrote that the main problem of contemporary Christianity was not so much knowing the right answers as having forgotten the questions they belong to. If the proclamation of faith is to be responsible nowadays it must not be afraid of questions. I believe that genuine, living faith has nothing to fear from turning some of its apparent certainties into questions once more.